The “high-status buffoon” is an established comedic type, but the last 15 years or so have been a real boon for the powerful-yet-incompetent and the blustery-yet-ineffectual. On TV, they’ve held political office and managed The Office; on the big screen, they’ve read the news and modeled haute couture. These are the types of roles that made Will Ferrell a movie star, the sort subsequent generations of Saturday Night Live alumni now play to varying levels of creative and commercial success. Jason Sudeikis’ new TV gig certainly fits the bill: His character on Son Of Zorn always has a foot in his mouth, he’s not the lady killer he fancies himself to be, and he couldn’t define “compassion” if he tried. (And he does.) But one major difference separates Zorn from cartoonish figures like Ron Burgundy and Conner4Real: He’s actually a cartoon.
Executive produced by Lego Movie duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Son Of Zorn is a fish-out-of-water/“Cat’s In The Cradle” mashup that moves Zorn from his native Zephyria to Orange County, where he attempts to reconnect with his live-action son, Alangulon (Johnny Pemberton), and ex-wife, Edie (Cheryl Hines). Though he’d never cop to it, those two aspirations are 100 percent related, and they’re both complicated by the presence of Craig (Tim Meadows), Edie’s fiancé. Zorn’s brain-gouging, table-slicing ways don’t exactly fly in Southern California, least of all with Alangulon, a vegetarian who prefers to go by Alan—though he’s more like his old man than he initially lets on. And so Zorn tries to tamp his brutish tendencies down, taking an office job (where he’s required to wear a shirt and tie) and renting a crummy apartment. At home, he’s a hero, but here he’s just another deadbeat dad with a sword strapped to his back.
Zorn’s outlines are tried-and-true, but there’s plenty of invention surrounding Reed Agnew and Eli Jorne’s animated warrior. Zephyria isn’t a different planet or some alternate dimension, but rather an island in the Pacific, reachable by commercial airliner despite skies that are presumably choked with enormous killer birds. It’s an Eternia-by-way-of-Westeros for the 21st century, where life is cheap and your cliffside keep can be listed as a $349/night vacation rental. And it bends to the whims of our reality, too. Zorn might have the physique of He-Man and the hair of Thundarr, but neither makes him immortal—certain camera angles betray the bald spot forming in the back of his luxurious mane. Touches like these show a funnier, weirder Son Of Zorn poking out from under all the pilot episode’s scene setting, like when Alan and a friend wonder what adults talk about. (“I don’t know, just taking a stab in the dark here, but jazz and birth control?”)
Son Of Zorn is at its most promising when it embraces this peculiarity. Hines doesn’t quite tap into it in the opening round—the script’s too busy making Edie treat her time with Zorn like a mistake—but Pemberton and Meadows do. The latter especially: He has a knack for conveying the hidden absurdities of straight-man characters, be they a high-school principal with chronic carpal tunnel or a census taker locked in a tête-à-tête with a man married to a bobcat. Craig represents the stabler, grounded, more reliable alternative to Zorn, but Meadows’ reactions and line readings are just kooky enough to fit into this heightened universe.
The premiere episode—receiving a post-football premiere on Sunday, September 11, before moving to its regular time slot on the 25th—comes across as one designed to dazzle, with splashy sight gags and its Saturday-morning-Frank Frazetta cold open. But when the spectacle subsides, is there enough storytelling juice and character to sustain Son Of Zorn’s high-concept? Amid pacing that’s as shaggy as the titular barbarian, the pilot lays out a few relationships and rivalries worth following. (Let’s not forget the tension between Zorn and his boss, played with a cocked-eyebrow deadpan by Artemis Pebdani.) But it’s anyone’s guess where those relationships go from here, seeing as Agnew and Jorne both stepped down from showrunning duties during production (Agnew stayed on as EP), abdicating that position to Grinder and Don’t Trust The B—— In Apartment 23 producer Sally Bradford McKenna.
Behind-the-scenes shake-ups aside, Son Of Zorn is still a show with a distinct personality at its core. The show stands out amid the competition because muscle men in loin cloths tend to stand out wherever they go. But despite his novelty, Zorn remains the same kind of unduly confident doofus that has dominated screen comedy for a decade and a half. Though Sudeikis’ performance brings a lot of life to the character, Zorn doesn’t have much going for him that isn’t rooted in premise. But if a washed-up sitcom star with a horse’s head can acquire one of the most complex psychologies in the high-status buffoon realm, maybe there’s hope for the defender of Zephyria, conqueror of the tribes of Agon, and decapitator of the dark herdsmen of Grith. He’s a cartoon character, but that doesn’t mean Zorn has to be two-dimensional.